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Why Bihar (still) matters

The state may be a paradox, but it represents India's slow transition to democracy, writes Rajdeep Sardesai.

india Updated: Nov 12, 2005 19:27 IST

If the content of news channels is a barometer of popular demand, then Bihar has simply fall en off the map. No more carpet bombing of elections: no election yatras, limited studio discussions or sketchy opinion polls, no constituency profiles, no day in the life of its leaders. The news managers have decided in their wisdom that what happens in these five weeks between Bhagalpur and Bettiah does not really matter anymore to the great Indian public.
To an extent, the channel tsars cannot be faulted. There are no TRP boxes in Bihar. Moreover, why would anyone want to watch an election which, to most observers, seems little more than a tepid re-run of what transpired just eight months ago.

In the hurly-burly of news, where today's story is tomorrow's history, revisiting Bihar seems a bit like being forced to sit through a bad film that one has already seen several times. The plot and the characters are essentially the same, three groups of feudal caste armies pitted in a seemingly endless battle with each other and the same set of criminals seeking to rule under different banners. Some of the `bahubali' soldiers have even switched sides to whomsoever will grant them an election ticket.

Even Lalu, for years the No. 1 entertainer-cum-communicator of Indian politics, appears stale. He still cracks the occasional one-liner (his latest: "Jab tak Lalu hai, tab tak tumhara tv channel chaloo hai"), but the ability to strike an instant rapport with his audience is slowly giving way to a growing impatience with his flock and with the media.

Today, Lalu's fabled rustic charm has been replaced by an increasing hostility towards an `upper caste' media. The Yadav GenNext is a target of his suspicion for fear that they will desert him for new opportunities. As he worriedly scratches the familiar hairy earlobes, it's almost as if the pressure of facing one election after another is beginning to tell on one of the few mass leaders left in Indian politics.

Even Patna's walking classes along Gandhi Maidan -- often the heart and soul of political debate - seem strangely subdued this time. More depressingly, few of them believe that anything will change in Bihar if the Yadav dynasty is replaced by a new order. The cynicism is overwhelming, and often justified. Will Nitish Kumar -- seen by many as a decent, honourable man -- really be able to provide good governance when he depends on just as many musclemen for support as Lalu?

And what of Paswan, who appears to have made his party a haven for anyone with a criminal record and bagfuls of money? The irony of Paswan screaming about law and order while sharing a platform with some of Bihar's most notorious goons, like Rama Singh and Rajen Tiwari, is too stark to be missed. Or for that matter, the routine recitation of the `social justice' slogan by those who occupy permanent luxury suites in Patna's few superior hotels. As for the incumbent in Raj Bhavan, not even a Supreme Court indictment will force him to quit the the perks of power.

So is Bihar at all important for the rest of the country? Should we give a damn about these elections? Yes, we should. Here's why Bihar is still crucial.

Forget the grandeur of Ashoka and the Festival of India brochures about Bihar as the cradle of the Indo-Gangetic cultural soul. The importance of Bihar is firmly situated in the present. With a land mass larger than France and a population more than five times that of Australia, Bihar matters simply because `size' matters. And size is not just limited to those who live within the geographical confines of modernday Bihar. The Bihar phenomenon includes all those Biharis who have migrated to different corners of the country. Travel to any major Indian city -- Mumbai, Kolkata, Delhi -and there is a fair chance that you will run into someone who can trace their roots to Gaya or Darbhanga.

All over India, the Bihari looms large. In state after state, it is the Bihari outsider who is the focus of social antagonism and jingoist politics. It may have started with a Bal Thackeray, but today it's not just Shiv sainiks who can be associated with a strident campaign against the Bihari `alien'. In recent weeks, there have been instances in tranquil Goa and Kerala where Bihari migrant workers, engaged mostly in hard, cheap labour jobs like road construction, have been targeted by the local population.

But there is also another side to this out-migration story, which doesn't conform to the stereotype of the Bihari as a lower-end labourer or paan-chewing taxi driver. Whether it's institutions of higher learning like JNU or IIT, symbols of old power like the IAS and IPS or totems to the new information age like Infosys, Biharis today constitute one of the largest groups of skilled manpower in the country.

Indeed, Bihar today reflects a strange paradox: on the one hand, the literacy rate in Bihar is a woeful 48 per cent, well below the national average. On the other, Bihar's demographic profile shows a large population, especially in the creative age group of 15-34, which is benefiting from higher education and a sense of social empowerment.

Take another statistic. Bihar just accounts for four per cent of the national market with eight per cent of the national population. However, its foodgrain production is higher than the national average. Bihar's poverty level remains well above the national average at 42 per cent. However, annual remittances disbursed by the Patna general post office alone account for a substantial Rs 1,000 crore.

In other words, Bihar offers both challenge and opportunity, a challenge to re-map its development paradigm and an opportunity provided by a large pool of manpower that has the skill and the energy to compete in the marketplace. Unfortunately, the complete politicisation of Bihar has meant that every activity in the state is seen through the narrow prism of caste and community. Then, whether it's building a road or initiating an irrigation scheme, it's often the clout of the local caste leader rather than economic sense that determines the choice of projects.

What Bihar really needs is a fiveyear moratorium on its politics, a period during which the state can be allowed to rediscover its economic potential. That seems unlikely given the sharp polarities of its politicians and the durability of caste loyalties, but it is still no reason to give up hope that the people of Bihar cannot emerge stronger from the social churning that is taking place. Or for that matter to condemn or caricature it as a state of criminals and comedians. Instead of ignoring Bihar and seeing it as a drag, this perhaps is the time to give it the help and support its people so desperately need.

As for those news managers in the media who believe that the Bihar elections are a bore, here's a statistic to consider: the voting percentage in the first two phases of the state elections was around 47 per cent. That statistic is still a higher voter turnout than in south Mumbai or south Delhi. And that statistic still represents a hell of a lot of people. Bihar's politics is ugly, it is nasty and it is disillusioning. But whether we like it or not, it remains an illustration of India's tortuous, tormented and hideously slow transition to democracy.

The writer is editor in chief, IBN.

First Published: Nov 12, 2005 19:27 IST